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Natural theology


Natural theology is a branch of theology, which attempts to establish truths by reason without recourse to revelation. The division of theology into revealed theology and natural theology is derived from the distinction between two kinds of truth in scholasticism, natural and revealed, and two corresponding epistemological methods; natural truth is accessible by the use of reason, and revealed truth is given through revelation. Natural theology is a continuation of one of these theological discourses. Deism, a movement which tried to establish religious truth by reason alone, emerged in the eighteenth century.

The existence of God and the immortality of the soul are but a few examples of the topics covered under natural theology through the present.

Key proponents

St. Augustine of Hippo seems to be the first to use natural theology in fifth-century Rome.

From the eighth century, the Mutazilite school of Islam, compelled to defend their principles against the orthodox Islam of their day, looked for support in philosophy, and are one of the first to pursue a rational theology, called Ilm-al-Kalam (scholastic theology).

English bishop Thomas Barlow wrote Execreitationes aliquot metaphysicae de Deo (1637) and spoke often of natural theology during the reign of Charles II.

John Ray (1627-1705) also known as John Wray, was an English naturalist, sometimes referred to as the father of English natural history. He published important works on plants, animals, and natural theology.

William Derham (1657-1735), was a friend and disciple of John Ray. He continued Ray's tradition of natural theology in two of his own works, The Physico-Theology, published in 1713, and the Astro-Theology, 1714. These would later help influence the work of William Paley (see below).

Thomas Aquinas is the most famous classical proponent of this approach. A later form of natural theology known as deism rejected scripture and prophecy altogether.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population, the first edition published in 1798, Thomas Malthus ended with two chapters on natural theology and population. Malthus-a devout Christian-argued that revelation would "damp the soaring wings of intellect," and thus never let "the difficulties and doubts of parts of the scripture" interfere with his work.

William Paley gave a well-known rendition of the teleological argument for God. In 1802, he published Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature. In this, he described the Watchmaker analogy, for which he is probably best known. Searing criticisms of arguments like Paley's are found in David Hume's posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Thomas Paine wrote the definitive book on the natural religion of Deism, The Age of Reason. In it, he uses reason to establish a belief in Nature's Designer who man calls God. He also establishes the many instances that Christianity and Judaism require us to give up our God-given reason in order to accept their claims to revelation.

American education reformer and abolitionist, Horace Mann taught political economy, intellectual and moral philosophy, and natural theology.

Professor of chemistry and natural history, Edward Hitchcock also studied and wrote on natural theology. He attempted to unify and reconcile science and religion, focusing on geology. His major work in this area was The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (Boston, 1851).1

The Gifford Lectures are lectures established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford. They were established to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term-in other words, the knowledge of God." The term natural theology as used by Gifford means theology supported by science and not dependent on the miraculous.

David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion

Dialogues concerning Natural Religion is a philosophical work written by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Through dialogue, three fictional characters named Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes debate the nature of God's existence. While all three agree that a god exists, they differ sharply in opinion on God's nature or attributes and how, or if, humankind can come to knowledge of a deity.

In the Dialogues, Hume's characters debate a number of arguments for the existence of God, and arguments whose proponents believe through which we may come to know the nature of God. Such topics debated include the argument from design-for which Hume uses a house-and whether there is more suffering or good in the world (argument from evil).

Hume started writing the Dialogues in 1750 but did not complete them until 1776, shortly before his death. They are based partly on Cicero's De Natura Deorum. The Dialogues were published posthumously in 1779, originally with neither the author's nor the publisher's name.


  • Pamphilus is a youth present during the dialogues. In a letter, he reconstructs the conversation of Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes in detail for his friend Hermippus. He serves as the narrator throughout the piece. At the end of the Dialogues he believes that Cleanthes offered the strongest arguments. However, this could be through loyalty to his teacher and certainly does not support Hume's views (Cicero used a similar technique in his Dialogues).
  • Cleanthes is a theist-"an exponent of orthodox rationalism"2-who presents a version of the teleological argument for God's existence using the deductive paradigm.
  • Philo, according to the predominant view among scholars, "probably represents a viewpoint similar to Hume's own."3 Philo attacks Cleanthes' views on anthropomorphism and teleology; while not going as far as to deny the existence of god, Philo asserts that human reason is wholly inadequate to make any assumptions about the divine, whether through a priori reasoning or observation of nature.
  • Demea "defends the Cosmological argument and philosophical theism… "2 He believes that instead of reason, people should base beliefs concerning God's nature through fideism. Demea reject's Cleanthes' "natural religion" for being too anthropomorphic. Demea objects to the abandonment of the a priori ideas of rationalism. He perceives Philo and Cleanthes to be "selling out to scepticism."2

William Paley's Natural Theology

Paley is best remembered for his contributions to the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, utilitarian ethics and Christian apologetics. In 1802 he published Natural Theology4 his last book. As he states in the preface, he saw the book as a preamble to his other philosophical and theological books; in fact, he suggests that Natural Theology should be first and so that his readers could then peruse his other books according to their tastes. His main goal was to suggest that the world was designed and sustained by God Such a book fell within the long tradition of natural theological works written during the Enlightenment; this explains why Paley based much of his thought on Ray (1691) and Derham (1711) and Nieuwentyt (1730).

Although Paley devotes a chapter of Natural Theology to astronomy, the bulk of his examples were taken from medicine and natural history. "For my part," he says, "I take my stand in human anatomy"; elsewhere he insists upon "the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear." In making his argument, Paley employed a wide variety of metaphors and analogies. Perhaps the most famous is his analogy between a watch and the world. Historians, philosophers and theologians often call this the Watchmaker analogy and many a student has cited it in an exam. The germ of the idea is to be found in ancient writers who used sundials and ptolemiac epicycles to illustrate the divine order of the world. These types of examples can be seen in the work of the ancient philosopher Cicero, especially in his De natura deorum, ii. 87 and 97 (Hallam, Literature of Europe, ii. 385, note). During the Enlightenment, the watch analogy occurred in the writings of Robert Boyle and Joseph Priestley. Thus, Paley's use of the watch (and other mechanical objects like it) continued a long and fruitful tradition of analogical reasoning that was well received by those who read Natural Theology when it was published in 1802.

See also

  • Deism
  • Creationism
  • Creation science
  • Theistic evolution
  • Intelligent Design
  • Existence of God
  • Philosophy of religion


  1. The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences, Making of America Books, 2007. Retrieved January 22, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Anthony C. Thiselton, "A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion"
  3. ↑ William Crouch, "Which character is Hume in the "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion"?"
  4. Natural Theology, Oxford University Press, 2005. Retrieved January 22, 2008.


  • Donceel, J. F. Natural Theology. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962.
  • Drummond, Henry. Natural Law in the Spiritual World. Grand Rapids, Mich: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1990. ISBN 0585035792 ISBN 9780585035796
  • Hartshorne, Charles. A Natural Theology for Our Time. Morse lectures, 1964. La Salle, Ill: Open Court, 1967.
  • Hume, David, and Henry David Aiken. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. New York: Hafner Pub. Co, 1948.
  • Long, Eugene Thomas. Prospects for Natural Theology. Studies in philosophy and the history of philosophy, v. 25. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992. ISBN 081320755X ISBN 9780813207551
  • Mather, Cotton, and Winton U. Solberg. The Christian Philosopher. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. ISBN 0252019520 ISBN 9780252019524
  • McGrath, Alister E. The Order of Things Explorations in Scientific Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2006. ISBN 140512556X ISBN 9781405125567 ISBN 1405125551 ISBN 9781405125550
  • Paley, William. Natural Theology; Selections. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
  • Turner, Frederick. Natural Religion. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2006. ISBN 0765803321 ISBN 9780765803320

External links

All links retrieved November 13, 2018.

  • World Union of Deists.
  • Babbage, Charles The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise - 2nd ed. 1838, London: John Murray.
  • Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, available for free via Project Gutenberg.

General Philosophy Sources

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Paideia Project Online.
  • Project Gutenberg.